written by Liz Dolfi, one of Hollaback!’s many freelance badasses (or as other people call them, volunteers)
One of the most common points made about Hollaback! by critics is that it “doesn’t do anything.” “Ok well, so you took a picture of this guy and maybe if you are one in a thousand victims this will help the guy get caught, but nothing really changes.” This is a common refrain in blog posts and articles written by people who don’t really get what Hollaback! is about.
The toughest thing about this street harassment is that there is nothing to be done. Certain legal changes would be great, but it would be impossible (not to mention unwise) to criminalize many behaviors that characterize street harassment. Street harassment is a no-win situation for those who experience it. Saying something to the person harassing you, even something polite, can lead to escalation and potential violence, but ignoring it and walking away also have a price. In my experience, it can be really damaging to internalize this stuff day after day. What we need is a major cultural shift. We need to create a social environment where yelling sexual comments at people on the street is considered unacceptable, and people speak up when they see someone being harassed. For this kind of change, we need a movement, and that is what Hollaback! is trying to build.
I have spent most of my life in cities, and these things (men yelling on the street, groping me on the subway) started happening to me when I was very young. As a fourteen year old being groped on the tube in London, it was very clear to me that no one was going to help me, and so I internalized what was happening and learned to be quiet and get out of the situation. Now, as an adult, I have a really hard time even getting out the words “don’t touch me” or “leave me alone” because that instinct to be quiet and get away is so strong. In my neighborhood in Brooklyn last year, I stopped doing laundry without my partner so that I wouldn’t have to walk past the guys who sit on the stoop of a nearby building shouting at women all day. I wore jeans in 95 degree weather in the summer because I was more comfortable to sweat it out than to deal with the extra attention that came with shorts or a skirt. Street harassment is part of many women’s daily reality and it isn’t enough to ignore it and walk away day after day, week after week, and year after year.
So why does posting stories about harassment on a blog change anything? Well, if nothing else, Hollaback has changed my life and the way that I cope with street harassment. Using your camera or camera phone is subtle way to take some kind of action when you feel powerless. Of course, the Hollaback! blog is only part of what this organization is doing, but it is a powerful tool. Submitting your photo and story to Hollaback! connects you to an entire community of people who collectively say this is awful, it shouldn’t have happened to you, and it wasn’t your fault.
I may not always respond to street harassment the way that I want to, I don’t always manage to get out my cell phone, and being harassed on the street or the subway still feels awful, but just knowing about Hollaback! ameliorates the sense of powerlessness that used to be so overwhelming. Hearing other women and LGBTQ folks who experience harassment based on perceived gender performance tell their stories helps me to know that harassment is a cultural disease – it doesn’t have to do with me, the way I look, or the way I dress. I no longer blame myself for smiling on a beautiful spring day when some guy takes that as an invitation to ask for sexual favors, and I am getting better at overcoming the compulsion to be apologetic and polite.
Hollaback! has changed the way I experience street harassment and I am not the only one. It has made me an activist for this cause. So when people ask “what good does it do to post a picture on a blog?,” I say “are you kidding?! We’re building a movement!”